Pirates Minor-League System Still Not Thriving After Years Of Lavish Spending

So this is how the Pirates figure so far in Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects lists:

Gulf Coast League
3. Luis Heredia
5. Jose Osuna
14. Alen Hanson

New York-Penn League
9. Nick Kingham
11. Alex Dickerson

South Atlantic League
4. Jameson Taillon

Florida State League
Nobody

The Eastern League and International League lists haven't come out yet, but we can safely guess that Starling Marte will come in near the top of the Eastern League list. Beyond that, I'm not sure the Eastern League list will include any other Pirates - Kyle McPherson might make it, and Jordy Mercer might. I don't think any of their pitchers will. I'm not sure who will represent the Pirates on the Class AAA list, either - maybe Alex Presley?

By my count, there are 16 leagues in the U.S. minor league system. That means there will be 320 players on these lists, or about 11 per team. The Pirates so far are represented by six players. Marte will definitely make it, and maybe one or two more will as well.

(UPDATE: Azibuck points out in the comments that, essentially, some of the leagues the Pirates play in have more teams than some other leagues that they don't play in, so the benchmark for an average number of players on these lists might be a bit below 11 for the Pirates and a bit higher for some other team. It doesn't change my argument a whole lot, but it's a fair point.)

I'm not yet sure what conclusions to draw from all this, but look ... this isn't good, folks. There are good things here, like the three Pirates prospects from the Gulf Coast League, particularly given Jose Osuna's surprisingly high ranking. But the Pirates have now had several years to build a killer farm system, and they haven't done it. Over the past four years, the Pirates have spent more on the draft than any other team. (Although it's true that these lists don't include any of their 2011 draftees except Dickerson, but even before 2011, the Pirates spent three years among the top-spending teams in the draft.) They've also spent more than before in Latin America. They've also traded many of their major-league players for minor-leaguers, including many minor-leaguers who spent most of this season in the minors.

Neal Huntington had very little to work with in the minors when he arrived. But at this point, that's no longer an excuse. The Pirates have invested in the minor leagues in every possible way in the past four years. They should be killing it. They'll be in pretty good shape in the farm system rankings this offseason after picking first overall in the 2011 draft and signing Josh Bell, and good for them for doing so. But at this point, we should be seeing a lot more. The farm system currently has a lot of interesting players, but not a lot of good ones. 

I hesitate to say that Huntington or his scouting team or his development team aren't doing a good job. I think the role of variance is usually underestimated in these kinds of assessments. If three or four more prospects had had really good 2011 seasons, then I don't think any of us would think there was a problem. (Heck, maybe there will be a bunch of breakouts at Bradenton and West Virginia next year, and then there really won't be a problem.) And though I think the Pirates' quantity-over-quality strategy in the 2009 draft was probably ultimately flawed, and that they should focus more on acquiring hitting talent, I think their general strategy of player acquisition is pretty reasonable. But it's not clear that it has worked so far.

In a decade, whether most fans realize it or not, Huntington will have made his most lasting impact on the franchise through the players he drafted and those he signed out of Latin America. In comparison, all the yammering about his trades and his choices so far at the major-league level is just noise. He needs to get this right. And at this point, I'm not 100 percent confident that he's doing so.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I'm not judging the Pirates' system purely on what Baseball America thinks about it. I expressed concern about the lack of breakout performances in the Pirates' system two months ago.

UPDATE 12:27 PM: Starling Marte is No. 7 and Kyle McPherson No. 20 in the Eastern League.

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